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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

Church plants seeds to ease hunger, promote spiritual growth

At 3:17 a.m. the Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase jumped out of bed, scrambled for his iPad and started Googling — somebody must have thought of this idea before him.

He scoured the web, searching for a reason to go back to sleep and forget about it. Nothing came up. 

Twenty minutes and $80 later, the domain name farmchurch.org was purchased.  Johnston-Krase put away his iPad and went back to bed.

The next morning Johnston-Krase called his friend, the Rev. Allen Brimer, and told him everything.

“Well, that’s it then,” Brimer recalled saying. “We’re gonna have to get this right.”

That was 2014. Soon Johnston-Krase and Brimer found themselves sitting in front of the Presbyterian Church USA evaluation team in Atlanta, Georgia, asking to create a new farming-focused congregation. To their surprise, they were given a green light. 

“Part of me wanted them to tell me no, no, no, don’t be a church planter. But that’s not what happened,” said Brimer. 

The men created Farm Church, whose mission is to gather a Christian-centered community around food cultivation. Its special focus is food insecurity in Durham.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a Trinity Ave Presbyterian Church Youth group helped weed a garden that Farm Church members tend. Photo by Allen Brimer

Inspiration

The idea for Farm Church came to Johnston-Krase in a dream. In it, he was taking a call to a church. When he got out of his car, there was no building, only people worshipping on a small plot of farmland. That’s when he woke up and frantically searched the internet.

Connecting to faith through cultivation was a concept that had been ruminating in both his and Brimer’s minds for some time.

Brimer caught the gardening bug in 1995, after stumbling upon an organic garden on a ranch where he was working as a camp counselor in New Mexico.

Growing food “woke up some ancient dragon in me that had been dormant,” he explained.

Brimer quit the counselor job and worked full-time in the garden that summer. The following summers he travelled to Arizona, Indiana and New Mexico to work on farms and learn as much as he could about growing food. 

“I just started farming, farming, farming,” he said. 

After acquiring the blessing of the Presbyterian Church, Johnston-Krase, Brimer, and their friend the Rev. Brandon Wert started a nationwide search for the perfect home for Farm Church. 

They considered locations from California to New York. Durham, North Carolina, was the dark-horse candidate. None of the pastors knew anyone in the area. That meant they would have to build roots in the community from the ground up.

But when they came to visit, they fell in love. “We came to Durham and it just shined,” said Brimer.

There were also plenty of mouths to feed. Eighteen percent of people living in Durham are food insecure, according to research done by The Southeastern University Consortium for Food Security and Health. That adds up to over 50,000 people.

Moreover, mild winters here allow Farm Church’s congregation to spend lots of the year outside with their hands in the soil. And despite decades of development, the city is still surrounded by lots of open land, which Brimer hoped would make it easier to find space of their own.  

So in August 2015 the men packed up their families and moved to Durham. Phase one was complete. Next they needed congregants. The following months they consumed excessive amounts of caffeine at local cafes like Mad Hatter’s and Beyu Blue and telling people what they were up to. 

“We were constantly just going and meeting people and telling the story over and over and over,” Brimer said.

Each meeting led to three more people who might be interested in their vision, and then three more. One coffee conversation led them to connect with SEEDS, an urban garden and kitchen classroom on Gilbert Street. 

An outdoors communion. Photo courtesy of Farm Church

Planting

On May 1, 2016, Farm Church hosted its first service at the SEEDS campus. Brimer offered a scripture passage while more than 60 people stood on the bare earth SEEDS shared with them. Then they got to work.

First on the agenda: Improving soil health. 

 “The first year in that garden, we were literally digging into red clay, like hard, dry red clay. It was awful,” said Anneke Oppewal, a middle school Spanish teacher who was one of Farm Church’s first congregation members.

Five years and several harvests later, the soil is rich and dark brown. And the congregation has grown. Anywhere between 70 to 100 people pass through Farm Church a week.

On Wednesdays, members spend the afternoon working on a tenth-acre plot on Watts Street. Anne Hodges-Copple, an associate bishop of the Episcopal church and a fellow gardening geek, offered them the land, Brimer said. 

With no official building to its name, Farm Church attracts those looking for an unconventional religious community that offers an active worship experience. Something that feels productive and purposeful.

“It has attracted people who are spiritually curious, but institutionally suspicious,” said Mark McIntyre, a member of Farm Church since its founding.

Oppewal said she felt unfulfilled by her previous experiences of “normal” indoor church. 

“It was all too easy to go in, sit down, stand up, leave. I was like, I think church is supposed to be more than this,” she said.

“Farm Church mixes this notion of practicing our faith life with doing something that’s actually physically useful to people as well. It satisfies not just a spiritual need, but a physical one,” said McIntyre.

Few people living in urban centers like Durham get to experience the satisfaction of defending precious crops from crowding weeds or watching shoots burst from seed capsules to stretch toward sunlight. Norman Wirzba, a professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, believes such cultivation experiences take on spiritual meaning. 

“When you look at scriptures, they’re all about God’s love for the land, God’s love for non-human creatures, God’s love for all human beings, and certainly God’s love for bodies,” he said. “That’s why you find Jesus constantly healing bodies, feeding bodies, befriending bodies, reconciling bodies, even exorcising the demons that are disfiguring bodies, because Jesus loves embodiment.”

Brimer, now head pastor, describes the garden as a “smorgasbord of metaphors” for Christian teachings. On Sundays, after Brimer reads and reflects on the scripture passage for the day, he ends with some meditative questions for the group. 

“When is a time that you did the compassionate thing, even though it was the hard thing to do?,” he might ask. Or: “What does justice look like in the midst of a pandemic? What does mercy look like in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement?”

With these questions in mind, Brimer walks members through the SEEDS gardens, pointing out plants with insect damage or encroaching weeds. He teaches skills, like how to harvest greens so they grow back stronger. The group then chooses what to prioritize and gets to work.

After working the land for 45 to 50 minutes, congregants step into an indoor space on the SEEDS campus for a break. They discuss the meditation questions and the scripture passage’s implications for their daily lives. 

“I never thought weeding could be something spiritual,” said Oppewal. “That very much connected with me, the idea of taking things out that are not serving us to make room for things that will; that has been a big metaphor.”

After discussing scripture and Brimer’s questions, it’s time for communion liturgy — minus bread or wine these days due to COVID-19. Service ends after everyone shares joys or concerns from the week and Brimer says a final prayer.

People clean tools and head home.

Bags of greens harvested by Farm Church members. Photo by Allen Brimer

Action

Farm Church members are passionate about food insecurity.

Radishes, lettuce, kale and the other foods that members grow are donated to local food banks, including one run by Iglesia Immanuel Presbyterian congregation, and to Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s food pantry.  During the pandemic, they have helped efforts to feed Durham public school families who depend on free or reduced-price meals.

When bad weather keeps them home, they watch documentaries about food systems and join Zoom talks with others working to try to improve access to healthy food in Durham.

While the injection of fresh produce from Farm Church into Durham food sharing networks is a first step at helping, Brimer wants to go further.

Reducing food insecurity in Durham has been a humbling experience for many. Low-income, marginalized communities experience a higher risk of food insecurity in the U.S. and Durham is no exception.

Part of a predominantly white, middle-class congregation, Farm Church members acknowledge they are disconnected with the people most in need of assistance. 

“Farm Church right now is very much a Band-Aid to very big and real problems that we can’t just address and be done with. We know that food insecurity stems from racism and poverty and health disparities, and these things that we can’t necessarily tackle,” said Oppenwal.

Plans are underway to develop a spot by a bus stop on Holloway Street where people can one day pick their own food while waiting for a ride. Brimer plans to seek out more people working on solutions and offer the church’s help, he said. 

“We want to ask if we can accompany them solving the problem and keep asking: How can I be useful here?,” he said.

9th Street reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at olivia.olsher@duke.edu

At top: A Farm Church fall harvest. Photo by Anneke Opewal

Altered but open: Durham Farmers’ Market still connects vendors and patrons

Nearly every Saturday morning since 2007, Durham Farmers’ Market transformed Durham Central Park.

Usually, vendors rolled into Central Park Pavilion early, 6 or 7 a.m.  From vans, trucks and cars they unloaded tents, tables and stands to display squashes, greens, breads, jewelry and more local fare. By 8 a.m. customers arrived, quickly spawning a crowded mass that mingled, dashed and clumped, like ants navigating their mound. 

That charming, chaotic ritual came to an abrupt end on Saturday, March 21. No vendors, no shoppers until May.

In between, the market had to overcome a turnover in its leadership and hatch a new COVID-style way of doing business.

Despite significant changes, the market remains a place where people connect.

“It just feels really important to be here,” said Izzy Pezzulo, a vendor for Red Trail Grains. “Not only to be making the money that you need to continue farming, but also to just show up for the community and feed people in a way that feels safer to them.”

Durham Farmers’ Market ambassador Anna Beck holds a sign at the entrance of the market this fall. Photo by Henry Haggart

Closing

When pandemic-related shutdown orders started in Durham, Susan Sink, market manager at the time, was communicating with Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson about spacing proposals to keep the market open. She explained that every item would be pre-packaged and vendors would be spaced 20 feet apart, she said.

But city officials made the decision early in the pandemic to close all city-owned facilities built for groups or gatherings. Sink was told that the city owns Durham Central Park where the Durham Farmers’ Market takes place and Mayor Steve Schewel had made clear the farmers’ market had to close to protect public health, she said. 

There was no market for the next six weeks. 

“We felt that we needed to make sure that we weren’t drawing this huge crowd until there were safety protocols in place,” Schewel said. 

Signs posted around the market encourage visitors to look but not touch while shopping. Photo by Henry Haggart

To reopen, Sink had weekly phone calls with officials to discuss new regulations. There was a large group call between the Farmers’ Market staff and vendors too. Establishing long term changes in market operations in March was difficult, because no one was sure how long the pandemic would last. 

“I do think the biggest challenge was mindset,” Sink said. “People did not believe how lethal the virus could be. And no one believed the situation would last so long, so they wanted easy stopgaps and not long-term marketing and distribution solutions.”

Jack Pleasant, president of the Farmers’ Market board of directors, went from attending monthly meetings about the market to spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to get it reopened. 

“We were dealing with things that were flying every day in different directions,” Pleasant said. 

To add to the complexity, some staff left. Angel Woodrum left her assistant market manager job because she was worried about her safety at work, Pleasant said. Sink stayed on as manager until May and helped with the reopening, but also decided to leave.

Emily-Kate Hannapel, a former assistant market manager who was working as an interior designer, volunteered to manage the market for two months during the search for a new manager.

“It was pretty scary because from one perspective, you’re trying to do everything that you’ve been told to create a safe space and a safe event. But especially in May, there was still so much that we didn’t know about the virus and how it spread,” Hannapel said. 

Despite the uncertainty, Hannapel said she felt the responsibility to try to make sure the Durham Farmers’ Market operated through the pandemic. 

“The whole point of having a really strong local food system is so that it can step up and work in moments of crisis,” she said. “We have all of these farmers who are growing food and we have people who want food and who are nervous about going into grocery stores. It just felt like this moment that our local food system, which is so strong here, really had to step up to meet that demand.”

In July, board members appointed Michelle Greene the new market manager. She had been a loyal customer of the farmers’ market for ten years, but had never worked on the management side. Catherine Rudolph was hired in August to replace Angel Woodrum as assistant market manager.

“I knew the atmosphere, but you think you know how a market works just by going and visiting, but you don’t,” Greene said. “It’s a very different world being a visitor compared to managing.”

A handwashing station stands near the entrance of the market within sight of pandemic shopping rules. Photo by Henry Haggart

Opening

Before COVID-19, the market was also open on Wednesdays from April until October. On May 2, only the Saturday market reopened to the public. 

It looks a lot different.

The market is now “one-way,” with one entrance and one exit. Everyone must travel the vendors’ loop in the same direction to avoid getting dangerously close to anyone else.

Customers must remain six feet apart. They are not supposed to touch products, but must wait for a vendor to help. There is a hand-washing station at the front of the market, and volunteers are posted to make sure customers are aware of the rules. 

Vendor stands stand at least 10 feet apart. Because of that, the market can now accommodate up to 40 vendors; in the past it hosted around 60.

Reducing the number of vendors from 40 to 60 happened naturally, because a number of vendors, such as Elodie Farms, chose to conduct their sales through online, contactless pick-up instead of through the farmers’ market, according to Greene. 

“We make a map every week for what the market will look like that weekend so that the customers have a guide for how they can get in and out the fastest, if they do feel that they want to run in and run out,” said Greene.

The faster-paced approach makes the farmers’ market a safer shopping experience, but can also make it more difficult for customers to connect the way they used to.

“I come to the farmers’ market almost every Saturday because it’s my sense of community, it’s a place to touch in with where I live,” customer Meredith Emmett said. “It’s just harder to talk to people and recognize people. I did just see someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time but it doesn’t have the same spirit of connection. It feels more like I’m grocery shopping as opposed to coming to the town square.” 

Red Trail Grains vendor Izzy Pezzulo said she cherishes connections she makes at the market in spite of masks and distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

Despite the market’s redesign for social distancing, vendors say that it still offers them some much-needed social interaction.

“Despite the circumstances,” the market is “really life giving,” said Pezzulo, the Red Tail Grains vendor

Pezzulo formed a friendship from the market with Ahbi Bügger, who manages the stand for Celebrity Dairy, when they began trading their products with each other.

Bügger had been farming in Peru and Brazil for six months when she noticed other people scrambling to find flights back to the United States. She realized she needed to leave, so she boarded a flight to North Carolina, where her parents live, and moved to Pittsboro, which is home to the Celebrity Dairy Farm.

“When I first started, people would come up, buy the cheese and leave — barely a hello was even said,” Bügger said. “And now, there are some lines and some waiting because people stay a minute.” 

Bügger still prioritizes a safe shopping experience, but has appreciated that her customers are willing to spend some more time when they stop at her stand. 

“The fear is subsiding a little bit, which I think is awesome,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant about safety, but it also makes my heart feel a little warm that people are really committed to supporting us and committed to connecting with the farmers that sell their products and intentionally making connections.”

Jennifer Tolliver, a farmer at Botanist and Barrel who manages their stand on Saturdays, decided that leaving her house for the market was worth the risk because of the mental health benefits. 

“We have medical professionals in the family, and we talked to them about it and everyone seems pretty much on the same page as far as the fact that being outdoors, socially distanced, plus masks — it’s a pretty low risk,” she said. 

The market is expected to remain open through the winter season, still outdoors in Durham Central Park. Current market restrictions will likely remain. 

“I do have a call with the Durham County extension office every few weeks and we go over what’s new. The winter has different things that may come,” Greene said. “We used to think we could predict things and now we don’t.”

9th Street reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: The pandemic has altered foot traffic and much more at Durham Farmers’ Market. What once was free form is now tightly choreographed. Photo by Henry Haggart 

Ninth Street: A love story

From the moment I wandered onto Ninth Street as a clueless Duke freshman experiencing her first days of August humidity in the Southeast, I never quite looked at the world the same way.

On Ninth Street, I worked my first service industry job where I saw, heard about, and experienced more sexual harassment than I knew existed. I fell in love with a woman and jumped into a whirl of confusion. I formed many thoughts while walking back and forth between White Star Laundromat and Bruegger’s Bagels. I cried. I laughed more. 

About to enter my last semester of college, I now live in Erwin Mill, a Ninth Street apartment building converted from a cotton mill in the 1970s (which I didn’t know until reporting for this story). Driving on Ninth Street a few dozen evenings ago, I was struck by the pink and purple skies gently resting on the street’s low-rise buildings and reflected, once again, on how much I love my home. 

That thought came with a pang of guilt. My understanding of Ninth Street and West Durham was limited to the last four years. To truly love someone is to know someone. It was time to learn more. 

Readers — this is a love story, a farewell letter, and a chronicle of my home and the people who defend it. 

Mill village

For decades, wheat crop covered most of what is now Old West Durham — a neighborhood that stretches north from the Durham Freeway to Englewood Avenue and west from Broad Street to Hillandale Road. Except for Pinhook, according to John Schelp, former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association and West Durham’s street historian. 

In the early to mid-19th century, Pinhook was a “rough and roaring” settlement whose great appeal was its tavern. After a day’s journey, travelers walking from Hillsborough to Raleigh would end up at Pinhook, which was “100 yards southwest of the southwest corner of Erwin Mill,” Schelp said.

They would kick back in the tavern, socialize with locals — including University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students who could party at Pinhook away from authority figures — and rest up before continuing their journey the next morning. 

Ninth Street itself was part of farmland owned by the Rigsbee family, whose land now holds Hillsborough Road, Carolina Avenue, 15th Street, and most of Duke West Campus. In 1892, the Duke family bought that land from the Rigsbees to build a cotton mill to diversify their investments in tobacco and expand into other industries, like textile. 

The long red-brick building on Ninth Street was the first of eight Erwin Mills that the Duke family owned in the Southeast. I and many Duke students live in the first. Parizade and Local 22, both restaurants, and the 10-story Erwin Square Tower replaced the fourth, which was larger. 

The development of the mill village, which stretched from Monuts on Ninth Street to the Duke Gardens, left no room for Pinhook’s ruckus, Schelp said. 

If you drank too much, not only did you lose your job, you lost your mill house… all the houses were owned by the mills,” Schelp said. 

Relative to other mill villages in the Southeast in the early 20th century, life wasn’t too bad, Schelp said. Erwin Mill workers and their families had access to a health clinic, library, swimming pool, baseball field and tennis courts.

Unlike some mill villages that had company stores, Erwin Mills allowed private merchants to populate Ninth Street, Schelp said. There was a grocery store, hardware store, post office, and McDonald’s Drugstore, a pharmacy and soda shop for 80 years that served renowned milkshakes until 2003.

The Regulator

In the 1970s, during Erwin Mills’ slow decline, new businesses and ideas began flowing into Ninth Street. In 1974, Duke alumnus David Birkhead founded The Regulator Press, which printed political news for grassroots organizations, in the back of what is now The Regulator bookstore. A couple years later, he gathered friends — including fellow alumni Tom Campbell and Aden Field — and suggested that they rent the streetfront space and sell books, Campbell said. 

Field jumped on the idea; Campbell, who had recently finished his master’s degree in environmental management at Duke and could not yet find a job, agreed to help out for a few months. 

“A few months became 41 years,” Campbell said. 

The Regulator Bookshop opened in 1976. Field moved on after two years and John Valentine, another Dukie, joined Campbell until they both retired almost three years ago. 

The entire friend group — Campbell, Valentine, Birkhead, Field — were politically progressive. “Durham was still largely a conservative town, so we were a little different,” Campbell said. 

Campbell and Valentine invited provocative authors to speak at their store, including feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, Black historian John Hope Franklin, and former Vice President Al Gore during his book tour for Earth in the Balance.

Shortly after the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party killed four members of the Communist Workers Party, members dropped off copies of their newspaper on a rack at The Regulator where locals could share flyers and free information, Campbell said. 

Flyers soon circulated the neighborhood, stating that there were communists on Ninth Street. “They were referring to us,” Campbell said. 

Some people in Old West Durham were clearly not communists. 

Don Hill’s Lock and Gun (renamed Don Hill’s Lock and Safe in 2007) on Hillsborough Road had a large cannon facing the street out front. For a while after the flyers that falsely claimed Campbell and Valentine were communists spread throughout the neighborhood, that cannon was turned towards Ninth Street, Campbell said. 

“It was a little scary,” Campbell said. “This was just a few months after people who were communists got killed in Greensboro.” 

Progressive shift

By the 1980s, Ninth Street was a hub for progressives and the intellectually curious. Ninth Street Bakery, which opened in 1981 where Dain’s Place and Durham Cycles are currently, was the first bakery in town to offer organic and whole grain options, co-founder Frank Ferrell said. 

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who helped Campbell and Field organize their bookstore the night before The Regulator’s opening, recalled often meeting other left-leaning thinkers  at the Ninth Street Bakery and bouncing thoughts back and forth for hours. 

While attending graduate school at Duke, Schewel worked for North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, which rented office space above what is now Wavelengths. Vaguely Reminiscent owner Carol Anderson said that “a network of lefty groups” rented offices above the hair salon back then. 

Based on their interests in vintage fashion and basket weaving, Anderson and then-business partner Deb Nickell founded Vaguely Reminiscent in 1982, taking the name from folk singer Charlie King’s 1979 song “Vaguely Reminiscent of the 60s.” 

Baskets and used clothes were not enough to fill a store, they soon realized, so they expanded to crafts and natural-fiber clothing. Today, that’s where you find Kamala Harris prayer candles and magnets that read “Wake Up And Smell The Complete And Utter Bullshit!” (Yes, I bought one.)

A piece of Durham history occurred in Vaguely Reminiscent. In preparation for the first official Durham pride parade in 1986, queer and progressive organizers asked then-Mayor Wib Gulley to make an anti-discrimination proclamation to protect them. Gulley did them one better and created an anti-discrimination week. 

The backlash was immediate. Local religious leaders and conservatives, led by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club, organized a recall campaign against Gulley. Activists set up booths around Durham and sought to collect the 14,000 signatures in six weeks they needed to trigger a new mayoral election.

Anderson mobilized volunteers to visit the same places that the recall campaign was collecting signatures to tell community members why they should not sign the petition. They met on the back porch of Vaguely Reminiscent to collect the tables, chairs and informational materials they needed, Anderson said.

The recall campaign did not get enough signatures. 

“There was a lot of political activism and interest in changing our community for the better,” Mayor Schewel said about Ninth Street back then. “The culture we were part of then has shaped what Durham is now.” 

‘Money is pouring’

Like a metronome set at 100 beats per minute, time lords over places and lives, demanding that all keep up. Ninth Street is not exempt.

As national chains move into spaces on the street where local stores once thrived, Ninth Street is becoming increasingly gentrified. Construction workers are turning the parking lot across from Anderson’s store into a Chase bank, the second bank on the street. The lost lot was critical to small businesses on the east side of the street. 

Anderson had planned to sell her business to a longtime employee this year. Not only has the pandemic delayed her retirement, she doesn’t know if anyone will want to take over a small business that’s a vestige of the past, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of the 80s. 

“It doesn’t have the political left vibe that it did,” Anderson said of Ninth Street.  

But that doesn’t mean the community hasn’t taken steps to defend itself. Between 2006 and 2008, Schelp worked with the City Council to create the Ninth Street Plan, which aimed to stave off corporate enterprise and preserve local businesses for as long as possible, he said.

The plan mandated a two-story limit on much of the east side of the street, an even split of three- and four-story buildings on the west side, and banned drive-through windows (The Wells Fargo drive-through was built before the plan.) 

Fast-food chains like MacDonald’s are less likely to move in if they can’t have a drive-through, Schelp said. Knocking down a one-story unit sounds less profitable when you can only replace it with a two-story building. 

Schelp and others from the neighborhood negotiated with other developers on and near Ninth Street, including Harris Teeter, the Berkshire Ninth Street apartments, Station Nine, and Duke Medical Center. They succeeded in influencing the exteriors of some buildings — lots of brick is  visible on upscale apartment buildings. But no units were set aside as affordable housing with less-than market rent, as some desired.

“Money is pouring into Durham,” Schelp said. “You can either complain about the bulldozers when they show up or you can months in advance, sit down at the table, roll up your sleeves and negotiate with the developers to make something that is more acceptable to the community and the builder.” 

A 1987 state law prohibited rent-control on the county or city level. While inclusionary zoning — policy requiring a given share of a new construction to be affordable for residents of moderate- to low-income — is not illegal, it is not explicitly legal either (a 2001 bill to allow mandatory inclusionary zoning died in committee).

Municipalities considering mandating inclusionary zoning worry that the Republican-held General Assembly would not only respond by suing the city, Schelp said, but also ban the affordable-housing strategy altogether.

Accepting development

Change is coming. 

Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero said that the city is currently updating the Durham Comprehensive Plan in ways that will expand affordable housing. In coming years, the city will see a rise in multi-family homes — duplexes, triplexes, quads — to accommodate the influx of people moving to Durham and keep housing prices from skyrocketing, she anticipates. 

The Comprehensive Plan will affect the entire city and supersede the Ninth Street Plan, Caballero said. 

The gentrification plaguing Durham today is the inverse of 20th-century white flight, when white people moved in large numbers out of racially-mixed urban areas for the suburbs, taking wealth and jobs with them.

Affluent whites are now moving to the city, displacing long-time Black residents who cannot compete financially for a number of reasons. For one, mortgage applications for Black residents here are less likely to get approved than  applications for white residents.  

Although Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson could not predict the future of Ninth Street, she said that “all Durham neighborhoods are going to need to densify in the coming years in order to ensure adequate availability of housing, particularly housing that’s affordable to lower-income residents.” 

So Ninth Street will change; the question is for whom? While some see rampant commercial growth (has anyone given Capital One a call?), others envision a compact and financially accessible community for all. 

Home

Since I was born, I moved back and forth between Canada, Hong Kong and Michigan. In each place, I lived with different adults. I’ve been asked countless times — which is home? 

Perhaps my answer will change years from now when I settle down somewhere and start a family. But Durham is the first place that has truly felt like home. 

Ninth Street today is far from the dwindling-mill-village-up-and-coming-lefty-hub where Schewel and Campbell hung out years ago. The steady march of gentrification could bury those roots. 

Still, I find my story aligning and intersecting with the experiences of the mayor and the landmark bookstore founder. This street helped change how I think about politics, race, and gender too. 

I also spent countless hours in The Regulator, particularly when I was desperate to escape the toxic demands of campus life. And if only you could meet all the wonderfully strange people I met here as well.  

Even though I may just be another Duke student cruising through, the impact that Durham has on me and the thousands of students who wander onto Ninth Street for the first time every year far outlasts our time here. 

I have wondered what this street will look like when I return to Durham as an alumna, and whether it will still hold magic like it has for me and so many before me. I don’t know, but I still have a lot of faith in the people who choose to call it home for the long haul.

All photos by 9th Street journalist Rose Wong, who can be reached at rosanna.wong@duke.edu.

Durham cancels trick or treating. Will crowds obey?

COVID-19 has claimed its next holiday victim in Durham: trick or treating on Halloween.

Donning a witch’s hat, Steve Schewel announced last week that Oct. 31 celebrations must look different this year to keep Durham residents safe.

Durham Parks and Recreation has created stand-in events to make sure this spooky season does not get overlooked, Schewel promised. 

“Durham residents have done a great job suppressing the coronavirus, wearing masks and social distancing and washing hands,” Schewel said during a press conference posted online. “The last thing that we want is for Halloween to become a super spreader event in our community.”

With North Carolina reporting over 230,000 cases, Durham County currently accounts for less than 1% of the cases in the state, but there have still been over 8,000 reported cases and 97 reported deaths here, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Schewel said he spoke with leaders of neighborhood that usually get the most trick-or-treaters, other North Carolina mayors and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Mandy Cohen, to explore how to handle Halloween during this pandemic. 

Outdoor mass gatherings are still limited to 50 people, meaning that the usual masses of costumed trick-or-treaters can not flood the streets. 

Club Boulevard in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood usually attracts so many trick-or-treaters along one mile that the city usually dispatches traffic cones and police officers to protect the masses of children. They will not do so this year, to emphasize that trick-or-treaters should not flood Club Boulevard or nearby streets accustomed to big crowds. 

The number of Halloween candy pieces handed out at two homes on West Club Boulevard each Halloween has long exceeded 1,000. Stormy weather accounts for dips in 2011 and 2019. Chart courtesy of Dot Doyle

Normally people there leave their porch lights on to welcome candy seekers, but this year Schewel is urging residents to turn them off.  “We know we can’t make this all work through enforcement, we have to make it work through our community voluntarily complying,” Schewel said.

But can it?

Tom Miller, who has lived in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood since 1983, trusts that people there are committed to discouraging the 1,000-plus trick-or-treaters they have welcomed in years past.

He does worry, however, that not everyone will be aware of the new situation and still come to the neighborhood. 

“People in my neighborhood do not want to spread COVID or be responsible for anyone becoming ill,” Miller said. “I won’t be surprised if people don’t get the word and come here. I’m worried about that. But I don’t believe that you’re going to see people on the street setting up this year as normal.”

Watts Hospital-Hillandale residents, who in the past have possibly drawn the most trick-or-treaters citywide, will post signs around their neighborhood about a week before to make the message explicit.  

“I urge other of the busiest Halloween neighborhoods to do the same,” said Schewel, who lives on leafy Club Boulevard near Ninth Street. He estimated more than 1,500 trick-or-treaters from Durham and out of town visited last year for candy. 

Although residents hate to post signs to deter one of their favorite holiday traditions, this year’s restrictions are necessary, said Dot Doyle, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association president. 

“If we have 1,500 children and their grown ups, that’s four or maybe five thousand people on the sidewalks in five blocks, which is just not possible with social distancing,” Doyle said, adding that she hopes she and neighbors can welcome everyone back in 2021.

Despite plans to discourage trick or treating in Watts Hospital-Hillandale, some yards are already gussied up for the holiday. Photo by Henry Haggart

Residents of Monmouth Avenue in Trinity Park, another popular destination, have found an alternative way to hand out treats this year. They plan to assemble candy bags they’ll donate to the Durham Children’s Initiative.

“On my block of Monmouth Avenue, we get over 1,300 kids,” said Pela Gereffi, who personally handed out 1,178 pieces of candy last year. “But we decided to go by what the mayor had stated — we’re not going to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to turn off our lights.” 

“Trunk or treat” events of the past, where large groups of children gather in church parking lots to move from car to car, are also too dangerous for this year, Schewel said. Faith communities can celebrate through touchless drive-thru trick or treating in church parking lots.

The City of Durham has posted suggestions online too, down to wardrobe coaching. “Costume masks should not be placed over a cloth mask as it will make it hard to breathe. Instead, it is suggested that participants use a Halloween-themed cloth mask over the costume mask,” the post says.

“If your family wants to trick or treat with a few other families, this is encouraged, as long as you pre-arrange the visits, the groups are small and outside only, everyone is wearing a Covid-safe mask and the transmission of treats is touchless,” Schewel said.

Durham Parks and Recreation All Hallows’ Eve events will be open to the public, but to limit crowd sizes, pre-registration is required. Among the events:

Fright Night” is a drive-thru event that will be held on Oct. 23 from 6-9 p.m. at Pineywood Park. Participants are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes and participate in a safe, drive-thru trunk or treat.  There will also be a haunted drive-thru trail, and a socially distanced viewing of “James and the Giant Peach” on the lawn. This event will cost $1.50 for city residents and $6.50 for non-city residents. 

“Vamp It Up” will be a virtual Zoom event hosted on Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Participants can pick up supplies beforehand on Oct. 23 at the Edison Johnson Recreation center. Supplies will include an arts and crafts activity, candy, and a snack such as pretzels or cheez-its. Participants are encouraged to dress in their Halloween costumes for the virtual event. 

The night before Halloween, the Holton Career and Resource center will host a drive-thru event “Trick or Treat, Stay Six Feet.” Participants will need to pre-register for a time slot within 6-8 p.m. Kids will drive to the parking lot and remain in their vehicles to receive free, contactless candy and treats. 

The 32nd annual “Hallow-Eno” will still take place this year, on Oct. 31 from 6-9 p.m. Participants will drive-thru West Point on the Eno’s historic area, and remain in their car to observe the Halloween decorations along the historic park loop, receive goody bags and take-home activities, and enjoy live Halloween music. 

The “Full Moon Fever Bike Ride – Halloween/Blue Moon Ride” will take place on Oct. 31 too from 7:30-10:30 p.m. A community trail watch group will have two start times and locations. The first ride will be approximately 32 miles, and the second ride will be approximately 16 miles. 

“Dias de los Muertos,” a virtual event to celebrate Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, happens Nov. 2 from 10-11 a.m.

“Halloween will be different this year, but Halloween will still be wonderful this year,” Schewel predicted. “I urge all of our residents to be as creative as you can.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: During this presidential election year, Donald Trump and Joe Biden masks are among the offerings at Spirit Halloween on Fayetteville Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

As gentrification marches on, Braggtown is latest Durham community fighting back

Braggtown, like many predominantly Black neighborhoods in Durham, was settled by formerly enslaved people. 

Liberated from the vast Stagville plantation at the end of the Civil War, these men and women migrated south of the Eno River a few miles to what was then a rural Durham County crossroads.

Today, residents of Braggtown are at another kind of crossroads for their community: the proposed development of hundreds of upscale homes and apartments that could level forest land in the neighborhood, cause property taxes to rise, and squeeze out low-income residents.

It would be the kind of transformation that has hopped around Durham for years, as the city’s resurgence has made overlooked – and often neglected – neighborhoods targets for private investment. 

There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment,” former City Manager Thomas Bonfield said in August, shortly before retiring.  “People wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham.”  But this transformation, Bonfield said then, means the city and its communities need to determine what they want from Durham’s growth. 

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Constance Wright, vice chair of the Braggtown Community Association.  “It just hurts to see how all the different parts of town that I’ve lived in has been either gentrified, or a highway has gone through it, or the houses are no longer there.”

“And then when you hear a city council member tell you that if somebody buys an empty lot beside your house,” said Wright, “and wants to build a million-dollar house beside your house, that your property taxes are gonna go up because of that house and there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean how does that sound?”

Already, community opposition led the Durham Planning Commission in August to vote against two adjacent rezoning proposals that would allow nearly 900 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes on around 180 acres, mostly woodlands, in Braggtown. The majority of the land is owned by Leonard B. Shaffer of Joven Properties, a longtime developer in Durham.

Despite the commission’s vote, the planning department staff says that the development is compatible with city guidelines, and the matter goes next to the City Council. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16.

Vannessa Mason-Evans, pictured in the pavilion of Lakeview Park. Photo by Henry Haggart

Life in Braggtown

Over time, parts of Braggtown have become a vibrant commercial hub with hundreds of businesses catering to a predominantly Black and Hispanic clientele. 

It is a reminder for some of the other communities of color that were displaced in the 1970s by urban renewal and the construction of the Durham Freeway.  Those are painful memories for longtime residents such as Wright and Vannessa Mason-Evans, chair of the Braggtown Community Association.

“I have lived in Braggtown all my life,” said Mason-Evans.  “I am a descendant of slaves from both sides of my family. My mother’s side were slaves from Granville County and my father is a descendant of slaves from the Chatham County area.”

Gentrification, by its very nature, targets communities that don’t have a lot of resources to put up a fight. They are often neighborhoods that have struggled to gain political power and win amenities and attention from City Hall.

Braggtown residents are mostly lower-income and people of color. According to census figures, the typical median household income is around $32,000, less than 60 percent of the county average. More than a third of the residents live below the poverty line. Housing is modest. The median value of owner-occupied homes is $108,000, about half the county average, and three-quarters of the community’s housing are rentals.

All this makes it a challenge for people like Mason-Evans and Wright, who are trying to convince politicians and potential allies that Braggtown wants to shape its own destiny.

For years, they haven’t had much help.

“We’ve been wanting a community center for years ever since I was a little girl; my parents wanted a community center,” said Mason-Evans. “But the city has never given us that, and they’ve always said we were annexed out. And they have never wanted to give us any type of funding,” Mason-Evans said. 

So getting after-school programs and other services has been a struggle, she said. The only community space available to a select few residents was a private recreation center at the Oxford Manor apartments. 

Braggtown’s boundaries, found on the Dataworks NC website.

A community organizes

In an effort to revitalize and beautify the community, Mason-Evans helped found the Braggtown Community Association four years ago. Wright would join the Association shortly after.

Mason-Evans has worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to clean up Lakeview Park, to reopen a closed-down county library branch this year, and to establish a Braggtown community garden.

In Red Maple Park where Wright lives, the community holds neighborhood clean-up events and has been working with TreesDurham, an advocate for urban forest preservation, to plant trees in a park rebuilt in 2015. 

“My dream has always been to have an eating community where, you know, people can just walk and pull food off the trees,” Wright said. 

This was the community trying to improve Braggtown, Mason-Evans points out, actions that have increased local developers’ interest in the neighborhood.

In an effort to save the history and heritage of Braggtown, the community association zeroed in on the proposed housing development along East Carver Street and Old Oxford Road. It would remove a broad swath of woodlands at a time when one of the city’s highest priorities is the preservation of its tree canopy

This has brought on a partnership with TreesDurham. One of the developers originally agreed to preserve about 20 percent of the trees. Community opposition boosted that commitment to 21 percent.

“The environmental justice concerns of clear-cutting forest within a historically Black neighborhood are . . . important to consider,” said Jason Arrol, a Braggtown resident and community association member during the August planning commission meeting.

“We’re getting development that is centered around urban sprawl,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham. “The main purpose is to build a lot of houses very quickly with the most profit for the developer. The design aggravates climate change, cements a reliance on fossil fuels, creates flooding and heat islands and heat sickness because there’s no emphasis on conservation.”

The community is dissatisfied with this 21 percent increase, calling for at least 35 percent. They’re also calling for guarantees of affordable housing.

“In the beginning, they only want to give us 10 affordable houses,” Wright said. “That was a slap in the face. Then they turned around and they said 20 affordable houses. That’s still a slap in the face.”

“We’re trying to collaborate and make a beautiful community for Black and Brown people,” said Mason-Evans. “We’re trying to make sure we have affordable housing for people and that we’re not just making our community beautiful for [the city] to come push us out and let white people come live in this community.”

A template

The fight for Braggtown has become a template of sorts for other neighborhoods looking for a more equitable development process. 

Three miles to the southeast, across I-85, sits the Merrick Moore neighborhood, where resident Bonita Green is worried about 400 acres of woodland purchased for development in her community and surrounding ones. 

“Our concerns are around safety as well as the environment and affordable housing,” Green said, noting that as trees come down and developments go up, property taxes have also increased.

Like the Braggtown residents, Merrick Moore won a recent rezoning skirmish. At a Sept. 22  meeting, the planning commission voted unanimously against the Merrick Moore rezoning proposal. A final decision, as with Braggtown, will come from council in six to eight weeks. But Green described the vote as a victory. 

The Walltown community has also been working with the city and developers to understand what the renovation of Northgate Mall will mean for them. Dataworks NC, which seeks to empower citizens, highlighted community concerns around resident input during this development. One typical comment gathered by the group: “I’m concerned that the developer does not respect or understand the community, and as a result will change the community for the worse.”

The view from the planning commission

The planning commission, an advisory body made up of community experts and residents, is calling for a system for development that prioritizes public input. 

After the Aug. 11 commission meeting, planning commissioner Nate Baker outlined his concerns with Durham development in a recommendation letter to the city council, explaining that although the developer has met all city requirements, the considerable community push back is indicative of a broken system. 

“Durham needs significant overhauls and comprehensive amendments to its development regulations that make Durham more green, walkable, sustainable, and equitable. That overhaul would benefit neighborhoods like Walltown and Braggtown, who are fighting for things that could simply be requirements.”

He said that more needs to be done proactively by governmental institutions to support community efforts, noting that although the increases in trees saved and in affordable housing are good, they “STILL not are not good enough”.

Levin echoed Baker’s sentiment, highlighting that although the planning commission has been consistent in its call for systemic change, the planning department has been consistently pro-development. 

“The planning department needs to work with the communities to create a vision of what they want to see, and then the planning department should clearly articulate those visions to the developers,” Levin said. “Right now the planning department just starts with what the developers want, and then works backwards to see how they can make that work.”

The planning commission’s votes against the Braggtown and Merrick Moore rezonings do not guarantee a rejection of the proposals by the city council. 

The City Council perspective

Ward 2 council member Mark-Anthony Middleton says he’s been speaking with the residents of Braggtown for quite some time. 

“Many of the residents feel that this development will not only further the march of gentrification, but do violence to the culture, the feel, and flavor of that community,” he said. 

Middleton commended the Braggtown community for their passion and hard work and for the progress they’ve been able to make in getting compromise from the developer without a push from the city. 

Many in the community call City Council pro-development, with a seeming readiness to approve rezoning requests. 

“There are some developers who feel we’re very anti-development,” Middleton responded. “I think one thing that people have to realize is that capitalism is pro-development. People need to understand that their government . . . we’re not as powerful as people think we are.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said something similar. “The problem is that the city doesn’t have the authority to regulate the housing market in any way that can prevent gentrification. We cannot tell a property owner that they cannot build at all,” she said. 

Middleton went on to say that the proposal is not a done deal. Between now and Nov. 16, the developer can come back with revisions that better incorporate community demands. 

“I don’t want folks to be discouraged by the seeming appearance of a Goliath-type developer with all his money. And I know that that’s a very real dynamic. But this is Durham, where we elect people that we vet and we expect to listen to people and to represent Durham values.”

Even if the city council rejects the proposal, the developer still owns the land and can do whatever they want with it within city laws. Middleton pointed out that this concept of “by-right development” is one part of the capitalist system which often leaves people out of conversations. 

“The City Council needs to refuse rezonings, unless they provide what is needed for Durham,” countered Levin.

She explained that although a developer who owns land can legally develop the land without city approval, they are limited in what the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) outline can be done with that land. Levin points out that very often, the land cannot be developed in a profitable way unless developers go to  council for rezoning. 

Rezonings like this are often the best way to provide more affordable options for residents, said Johnson. “When we don’t rezone in cases like this what we’re likely to get is actually less homes and less affordability. Even though what we’re getting if we do rezone is not as much affordability as we would want.” 

On properties like the Old Oxford Road tract, the current zoning under the UDO would allow for the development of bigger and fewer homes on larger lots, Johnson said. As a result, rather than developing cheaper, higher-density duplexes and apartments, the land as currently zoned can be used for expensive single-family homes. Johnson explains that without a rezoning, property values, and taxes, could only rise further. 

Higher-density residences are better for the environment, Johnson said, a statement that Levin disagreed with. 

“The City Council and the developers have created this narrative that more housing, or more density, equals better for the environment, better for the community, but that’s not correct,” Levin said. 

Middleton and Johnson said they are still waiting for more information on the development before deciding how they’ll vote. 

“I think people just don’t understand that we cannot prevent development by not rezoning something,” Johnson said, noting that a historically Black neighborhood like Braggtown expressing substantial concern for the loss of homes and livelihoods because of development is something she takes very seriously. 

“I think what I need to understand more about before deciding whether this proposal is a good idea is what’s option B? I find the question of ‘what gets built there by default’, very concerning” Johnson said. 

“The people of Braggtown certainly have my ear and have my attention,” Middleton said. 

“Can the system be made better? Absolutely. And does money make a difference? Absolutely. But I think one lesson we can take from Braggtown is that an organized, impassioned community can meet big money toe to toe,” he said.  

Vannessa Mason-Evans looks out across Lakeview Park. Photo by Henry Haggart

On the horizon

The 9th Street Journal reached out to Horvath Associates, the civil engineering and landscape architecture firm working on the Braggtown development on behalf of Joven Properties. Tim Sivers, president of the firm and lead on the project, said he was unable to comment on the project or community concerns at this time. 

“Developers should be willing to sit down and talk with community members,” said Mason-Evans,  “to see what their needs are and what they would like to see in their community, but so far the people that we’ve talked with, they didn’t come to us. We went to them.”

When developers were holding their community meetings, they notified residents within 1,000 feet of the project.  Although this distance is above the city’s requirements,  Mason-Evans said many people still didn’t hear about the meetings because “there’s nothing but woods around the particular area that they invited.”

“Laws are made to protect white people, or to make their lives easier, but it makes our lives hard under the laws of the white man,” said Mason-Evans.

“We’re doing a lot of fighting. It’s not just for affordable housing. We’re fighting for the rights of people to have a place to stay and live comfortable and not feel like they are not included.”

9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: A section of East Carver Street where both sides of the road are included in development plans. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Wade Williams, Durham’s activist with art

“VA 2-211-685” is scrawled in black marker across a sheet of paper. Wade H. Williams, artist at his own company Artist at Large, holds up his handiwork to his computer cam. He is sitting in his studio, with a charcoal portrait he’s just finished in the background. He wears large round glasses and a silver earring dangles from his left ear. Above his lip a handlebar mustache is expertly curled at each corner. 

The string of letters and numbers he’s holding up over our Zoom call is the copyright registration number of his painting in downtown Durham, created when Black artists showed their opposition to police violence with an extraordinary collection of murals. The painting, called “Lady Justice/ Black Lives Matter,” depicts a Black Lady Justice wearing a white blindfold and holding the scales of justice. It can be seen on West Chapel Hill Street at Five Points downtown. 

It was opportunistic protest art. “Lady Justice” is one of many works along Main Street and West Chapel Hill Street after local businesses boarded their windows with plywood in response to Durham’s Black Lives Matter protests in June. The wood provided a canvas for Black artists to make statements about racism and the BLM movement.

Wade Williams’s mural “Lady Justice/ Black Lives Matter.” Used by permission.

Williams has much experience with public art, but this hit particularly close to home. His art has highlighted issues of race for many years. 

“I try to give food for thought on the African Diaspora,” he says of his work, which has been displayed across the world, from New York to Philadelphia to Belize. 

Williams was born in Duke Hospital in 1950. He graduated from Hillside High School in 1968 and majored in Fine Arts at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. He spent the next 10 years at the Art Students’ League of New York. He studied drawing, oil painting and artistic anatomy (important fundamentals for an artist who cites French Impressionists and Renaissance masters as his influences.) 

In 1989, he decided he was on his way to becoming a professional student — a fate he wanted to avoid — so he sold his studio in New York and moved to an island called Caye Caulker, 45 minutes from Belize City via water taxi. 

“The idea was to unlearn everything I had learned in school,” Williams says. “You want to come out with your own style, your own thing.” 

He went on to hone his style as an artist and educator in Philadelphia, and eventually he returned to Durham in 2006 to help care for his mother and grandmother. He is now a member of the Public Art Committee of the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, a contributor to the Durham Civil Rights Mural Project, and competitor in the Durham Arts Guild 66th Annual Juried Exhibition. 

Willie Bigelow, art curator of the Hayti Heritage Museum in Durham, is a fan of his work and included Williams in the museum’s annual Black History Month Exhibition. Bigelow suggests teachers use his work to educate their art students. “It’s got an European-African flare,” he says. ”It’s superb.”

When I ask Williams about the mural downtown, he stands to find a print to hold up. This is just one of the many times throughout our interview when he will stop for a moment to find a relevant passage to read or show a painting he’s just mentioned. 

“I’ve been an activist in a quiet way, in my own way,” he says. “Either I’d show it through my art or when I was younger I would march or boycott.”

When attending college, he became a member of the Black social fellowship Groove Phi Groove, which continues to do public service around the Triangle. The group’s colors are black and white — just like the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams points out. The Groove Brothers provided water, food, and masks to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and recently raised money to donate masks and gloves to Durham neighborhoods with fewer resources. 

“At the age I am now I really can’t go out in the street and walk those miles, but I support them,” Williams says of the protesters. That’s why he created “Lady Justice/Black Lives Matter.”

“Someone brought it to my attention that they were doing murals, and naturally I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. He searches through his desk to find a picture of “Weeds Habitat,”  his first mural, painted in New Rochelle, New York, which shows leaves and rainforest painted in shades of green and blue. Since then, he has often used murals to bring art to a wide audience. 

“In every part of Philadelphia there’s a mural with my name on it,” Williams says of his time there, where he was assigned to “areas that angels would not go.” He tried to portray himself as a role model to the students he worked with. His low-key style has earned respect.

His mixed media portrait of Miles Davis. Used by permission

“He is quiet, but when he has something to say, people really listen to him because he’s not busy taking up a lot of space, which can happen in group dynamics,” says Brenda Miller Holmes, an artist and public arts consultant in Durham. 

The two met when Miller Holmes was organizing the Durham Civil Rights Mural Project in 2013. She knew right away that she wanted to include Williams and now considers him a friend. 

“He creates art that’s pushing against when it’s necessary. He also creates a lot of artwork that’s about beauty and culture and what you want to build and hope for the future,” she says. 

Even when he’s not working directly with students, Williams tries to educate through his art. 

“What I’ve been doing lately is trying to express how Black people live, how they have fun, and I do that to combat some of these stereotypical thoughts people have of people of color,” Williams says. 

He pulls up “An Unquiet Moment,” a recent piece of a Black man sitting solemnly with a french horn. Yellow flowers sit in a vase on a vanity, and light shines through the room from an unseen window. 

Another piece he shares shows Miles Davis trumpetting on a bright day. He is a collage of a french railway map in a landscape of watercolor. On his face is joy and from his horn there is music. 

“Some kid may see that and wonder who that is, what’s that about and they may not have known the struggles or the things people before us went through to get to that position,” he says. 

In a different painting, an operating table is center stage and a Black operating staff is working to finish a procedure. The image is stark with dark colors save the contrasts of white uniforms; the team is solemn and focused under their masks. Behind them is a small window. Outside, the sun shines.

“I don’t think of him as an activist, he’s more of a reporter, and he uses his art to do it,” says Bigelow, the Hayti museum curator. “He uses his art to relate what he sees is happening around the community. He’s like a newscaster: here’s what I see, here it is.”

Williams wants his next project to highlight the Tuskegee Airmen, but he is early in the research, not yet sure how it will take shape. He also is keeping in mind a large basket of vegetables his neighbor brought over recently. He was stunned by the beauty of the vegetables and photographed them so he could paint them later. 

“I want to tell a story of all the positive things my people have done, that’s one way of defunking the socialization of a people,” Williams says. “Knowledge is king, knowing your history is king.” 

Above photo of Wade Williams by Henry Haggart, The 9th Street Journal

Renovated Durham main library closer to reopening, but no date set yet

After more than three years of renovations, Durham Main Library was slated to reopen in April. 

But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, and now a library official says it’s still uncertain when the library will be open to the public again.

Library director Tammy Baggett said construction is complete. However, not all of the library’s technology was connected before the malware attack in March affected Durham city and county operations just as COVID-19 spread in the U.S. The library still needs to set up computers and other equipment in accordance with social distancing guidelines, she added.

This renovation has been years in the making, and many people are anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. Though she does not directly work on any library boards, Durham Board of County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said it is vital the library reopens by the time schools start up virtually in August and resume in-person classes in October.

“The libraries are going to be very important resources for our families, for students and families to study and work,” she said. “The Main Library, all the libraries, will be a very big part of prioritizing our kids and education.”

Baggett wouldn’t release any specific details about reopening plans, but said she is eager for it to happen — with social distancing rules in place, of course. 

“Once we get to a point of opening, it will be with what is always done,” Baggett said. “Anyone is allowed in the library. We are the great equalizer. Everyone is always available through our doors.”

Libraries are hubs for the Durham community. They bring in thousands of people every day, including those seeking books, internet access and shelter.

People drop off books at a Durham library. Photo by Henry Haggart

According to the library system website, 15% of Durham households do not have access to the internet and under 40% have access to a broadband connection. Just over a quarter of library computer users have searched for, applied for or secured a job using library resources.  

Durham libraries are also some of the few places in the city that offer programs and resources to community members free of charge. For those experiencing homelessness, libraries can be a place of refuge during extreme weather events or during the day when they need bathrooms or computers. 

According to Durham County’s website, the original building was too small to accommodate the city’s growing population and technological needs. In November 2016, a bond referendum passed to fund a major expansion and renovation of the 40-year old library, and it closed two months later. The renovated building — which cost the city $44 million — is nearly 20,000 square feet larger

Baggett said work is still ongoing throughout the county’s libraries to get them ready for visitors. County libraries are closed to the public except for book pick-ups, but offer many free online services like virtual story readings, book clubs, and games over Zoom. 

For now, employees are answering patron questions through an online service called LibChat and members can check out items like books and DVDs without going inside.  

Durham Main Library is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for book drop-offs Monday through Friday. Baggett said all books are placed into 72-hour quarantine when returned and then individually cleaned. 

“We are just making sure when we do open, the environment is as safe as possible, for community and staff,” Baggett said. “Safety is priority one.”

9th Street Journal Reporter Veronica Niamba can be reached at veronica.niamba@duke.edu

Top photo: Durham library signs during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

The Bull Durham house, then and now

From the outside, the Bull Durham house at 911 N. Mangum St. looks pretty much the same as it did in the famous 1988 baseball film. The windows are big and a mix of styles, typical of the home’s Queen Anne architecture. A swing still hangs on the front porch. 

But inside, there is barely a trace of the erratically wallpapered, chaotically cluttered home where Annie Savoy, played with passion and wisdom by Susan Sarandon, seduced a series of Bulls players, most notably Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). Today, the home is transformed into an embodiment of southern minimalism. 

The garish wallpaper is gone (understandably) and the walls now display a spectrum of muted pastels. Instead of Annie’s large collection of candles, the home is filled with natural light. It is very southern chic, with plenty of open space, simple colors, and vintage-esque furnishings. 

We know these details because the sale of the house is pending (asking price: $1.15 million) and, when it was on the market, it even had its own website, thebulldurhamhouse.com, complete with a virtual tour. Stroll through the house (virtually or in person) and you won’t see many signs of Annie or Crash or Nuke – except for the tub.

“For me, the scene I’ll never forget was the infamous bathtub scene with Annie and Crash,” says Jarin Frederick, the real estate agent selling the home for Urban Durham Realty.

“The clawfoot tub is still in the home today!” says Frederick, referring to the location of one of the most famous moments in the film. The tub scene is all kinds of steamy, with Costner and Sarandon finally consummating their love affair surrounded by dozens of burning candles. They share passionate kisses and the camera pans away as the water splashes out the candles’ flames. 

Is the tub now in a different room? It seemed larger in the film, but maybe that’s an optical illusion.  But if you’ve got $1.15 million, who cares? You can recreate this moment of movie magic, even if you have a bit less space for candles. 

Even before it was on the big screen, the house, built in 1880, carried an air of celebrity. It has been granted historical status both locally and nationally as the “James S. Manning House.” 

Manning was a reputable Durhamite, first as an attorney and judge, later a state senator and eventually as the North Carolina’s attorney general. He remained in the home until 1912 when he resettled in Raleigh. After the Mannings relocated, the house changed families a few times until it eventually became vacant. 

The garish wallpaper is gone and the home is now filled with natural light. Photo by Taylor McDonald, courtesy of Urban Durham Realty

That’s how it stood in 1986, when Ron Shelton, a director, screenwriter, and former minor league infielder, saw the house while scouting locations for the film that would eventually become Bull Durham. Shelton has said in interviews that the filmmakers chose Durham because of its minor league team and its skyline of dilapidated tobacco warehouses, which complement the romantic allusions of the movie. 

But Bull Durham wasn’t entirely shot in Durham. A batting cage scene was filmed in Garner at what is now a mini-golf course; the bar where Nuke and Crash first meet is in Raleigh; and the baseball diamond where LaLoosh is interviewed about pitching in “the show” was in Arlington, Texas.

The Manning house, though, is less than a mile from the Durham Bulls stadium where the team played in the 1980s and where much of the film was made.

What a difference 30 years (and a little decorating) can make. When Annie lived there, the house was decorated with a seemingly endless collection of tchotchkes: buddhas, goddesses in various forms, and baseball memorabilia. Each room had its own statement wallpaper (usually floral) and the whole place was candlelit by night and sunlit by day. 

In a desperate attempt to seduce Nuke during what he thought to be a celibacy-induced winning streak, Annie shouts that she detests cute – she wants to be “exotic and mysterious.” That describes her home, too, a workshop for her new age mysticism.

Today, the home is spacious with four bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms, a front and back porch as well as an office, family room and living room. In the film, the house was painted a fading mint color. Now, it’s a slate gray, the classic mismatched windows accented with a bright red like the stitches of a baseball. It’s so nice it looks like it’s been on the cover of Southern Living.

Frederick says the owners have taken good care of it. “When you walk through the home you are immediately aware of the love and commitment the  homeowners made the last 13 years in preserving this historic Durham treasure,” she says. 

The website highlights a laundry list of restorations and updates since 2007. These range from lighting fixture updates to larger renovations, like the addition of a garage and workspace in the backyard and the refurbishment of the front porch where Crash awaited Annie’s return from the ballpark in the film’s last scene.  

Annie joins him on the porch, and the two sit under cover as rain comes down around them. She rambles about the non-linearity of baseball and Crash kindly tells her to shut up. Eventually the two move inside. Much is left unsaid as they dance in front of Annie’s shrine to the religion of baseball. 

Staff writer Carmela Guaglianone can be reached at carmela.guaglianone@duke.edu

At top, photo of the Bull Durham house by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

From gin to clean hands: how a Durham distillery adapted to the pandemic

A few months ago, Durham’s Mystic Farm & Distillery decided to expand beyond its well-known line of gin and bourbon liqueur and make a completely new product: hand sanitizer.

When Jonathan Blitz’s partner Michael Sinclair first came to him with the idea, Blitz thought it would be a distraction to their whiskey production. Now, he is glad he went along. “It’s turned out to be an absolutely enormous business… it’s given us a new lifeline.”

Mystic has been distilling gin, whiskey bourbon, and bourbon liqueur since 2013, and added sanitizer at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. At first, the company sold to individuals, with so much demand that it backed up traffic down the street.  

“It was awesome,” said Sinclair.

The business has now shifted from individuals to larger contracts, including one from Duke University. 

Duke needed a dependable supplier after experiencing backorders with its usual vendors. “We had to find a plan B,” said John Noonan, Duke’s vice president of facilities. 

Mystic turned out to be that plan B. The company said it could meet Duke’s huge demand.

That demand has gone up because the number of hand sanitizers on campus has increased from 1,000 to about 1,700 to accommodate the return of students to campus. “When you get thousands of students and faculty who are taking four or more shots of hand sanitizer a day, it adds up,” Noonan said. 

Duke also is taking steps to ensure the sanitizing stations are environmentally friendly – refilling the bottles instead of replacing them.

What do the processes of making hand sanitizer and alcohol have in common? Not much. But the equipment to produce it is similar, which is why Mystic and other distilleries have gotten in the business. 

The equipment Mystic uses was bought from a pharmaceutical plant auction and then adapted to distill alcohol. This same equipment has now come full circle, being used to make medical-grade hand sanitizer.

You might think that alcohol from the whiskey and gin might somehow be used in the hand sanitizer. But they are different products. It is more efficient to buy the base alcohol in bulk for the sanitizer. 

Blitz says, “One of the reasons we’ve been able to get contracts from the large academic medical centers is that we are producing a high quality product and keeping that quality high. It’s not cheap or easy, but it has to be done.”

Blitz predicts they’ll be making the new product for a long time. “This generation for the next 15 to 20 years is going to use a lot of hand sanitizer.” Mystic is continuing to look at expansion options into over the counter drug opportunities now that they have the ingredients and equipment.

Blitz says hand sanitizer now outsells their spirits, but what matters is that the company is thriving. “We’ve been able to keep all our employees, which is what success means to me.”

Staff writer Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

In photo above: Mystic now sells hand sanitizer in a variety of sizes. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

“You have to let go,” says TROSA founder Kevin McDonald as he steps aside

When Kevin McDonald woke up the morning after his first round of electroshock therapy, he couldn’t remember how to make coffee. He used to drink it every morning – strong with some cream. That Saturday he stopped. 

But the shock therapy continued, and so did his memory lapses. Scrolling through Facebook, he found himself staring at unfamiliar names and faces. And when he drove into the complex of TROSA, the Durham organization he founded 26 years ago, he couldn’t remember the security guard’s name. 

Eventually, McDonald, who served as the President and CEO of TROSA since its inception, decided he had a choice to make: hold on to the organization, or allow someone more capable to take over.   

In the decades since McDonald started TROSA (the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) with $18,000, an abandoned school building and a four-burner stove, the organization has helped hundreds of people recover from substance abuse and become a cornerstone of the Durham community. TROSA moving vans help Durhamites schlep their stuff to new homes, TROSA yard crews keep lawns trim and TROSA cleaning crews prepare Cameron Indoor Stadium before almost every Duke basketball game. 

But after 26 years running the organization, McDonald knew he needed to hand over the reins. On July 1, he stepped aside to a role as “founder” as Keith Artin, the organization’s longtime chief operating officer, became president and CEO.  

“I just knew in my heart of hearts that you have to let go,” McDonald said.  

***

When I called McDonald over Zoom recently, he appeared on my screen wearing a white button-down shirt that matched his large white beard. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald, who is 72 and has trouble breathing, has worked from home. Despite the isolation, he’s enjoying life. 

“I’m drinking Coca-Cola instead of Diet Coke,” he chuckled. “I’m splurging, man.” 

McDonald is no stranger to letting go. Because his dad was an officer in the Air Force, McDonald never got to settle down. He was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but he grew up across the South – Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. 

As a Yankee with a Boston accent, McDonald struggled to fit in, and developed feelings of shyness and social anxiety. His mother was also physically and emotionally abusive, he said. 

In 1959, when McDonald was 12, his family moved to Germany, where his father served as commander at an air base. His anxiety and lack of confidence continued to fester. 

He escaped with alcohol, frequenting local bars as a young teenager. “I wasn’t shy there, after I had some drinks,” he said. By the time he left Germany in 1963, alcohol had become a major problem in his life, he said. 

The family moved to California, and he started partying and drinking more. Eventually, his drinking problem became so severe that his dad delivered an ultimatum. “My way or the highway,” his father told him. McDonald took the highway. He was 17. 

After high school, he enlisted in the Air National Guard, in the hope of making it into the Air Force Academy. He started carting drugs from Northern California to Los Angeles, but wore a short-haired wig during his military training so he’d look clean-cut. 

McDonald didn’t make the Academy and then started snorting heroin, which spiraled into more trouble. Soon he was robbing pharmacies to get drugs. But he got caught twice in three months. The first time, he was bailed out; the second time, he received a sentence of 20 years in prison. (A defense lawyer found a way to reduce that to three months.) 

Instead of spending years in prison, 32-year-old McDonald headed to Delancey Street, a substance recovery program that would become the model for TROSA. At Delancey, McDonald began to learn how to care for other people, and—even more difficult—to accept other people’s care for himself.  

“The hardest thing for me was to receive, to let people care about me, get close to me. That started happening too,” he said during an interview with Frank Stasio on “The State of Things.” 

During his 12 years of working at Delancey, McDonald visited Greensboro, North Carolina to help set up a substance recovery facility. There, he met many of the people who would later invite him to set up a similar program in Durham. 

Inspired by his own treatment, McDonald decided to start one when he moved to Durham. He told his wife Sue about his plans during their wedding dance. 

TROSA soon took off, earning large donations from the Chamber of Commerce and support from the community, including volunteer work from a Duke fraternity. Combining work-based training, counseling and education, the program helped hundreds of residents recover from substance abuse problems. TROSA’s lawn care, thrift store and moving company have each won readers’ awards from Indy Week. 

Even as the program grew into a big success, McDonald kept his eye on the day when he would have to move on. 

“It’s what’s important for the organization, not the founder, not individuals in the organization, and I really believe in that,” he said during his 2015 interview on “The State of Things.”   

***

Roughly the same time as that interview, McDonald began experiencing more severe bouts of depression, which had been a chronic problem. He had more trouble finishing tasks and getting out of bed. People who knew him well could tell that he was a little colder, a little harder.  

He went to a psychiatrist, who eventually recommended that he undergo electroshock therapy.

He ended up going through 19 rounds of the therapy before deciding to stop. He says the treatment left major gaps in his memory. He once had a knack for remembering names and faces. Now, when TROSA residents greeted him, he would have to say, “Hi, what’s your name?” – and he felt terrible about it. He used to be able to give speeches from memory, but now he had to write them down. 

Around that time, McDonald was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can lead to physical decline and short-term memory loss.  

“It was scary,” he said. “It was like, I went inside myself. And, how am I going to adapt to this one? How am I going to beat this?” 

But as the memory lapses continued, McDonald realized that some things in life can’t be overcome – only endured. He decided it was time to step down at TROSA.

“Nobody realized but me where it was,” he said. “And so I just said, ‘July, I’m out.’ And it was the right thing to do.” 

McDonald’s voice cracks when he talks about the support he got from his staff, particularly after he announced he was stepping down. 

“I just was so emotionally blown away by people caring so much. I’ve cared a lot of about people in my life, and I’ve given everything I got for a lot of years, but I don’t expect people caring about me.” 

Does he regret stepping down? 

“Oh no,” he said. “I worked hard, man.” 

Actually, he’s quite happy. A person he trusts is in charge, and, as founder, he can still be involved. 

“I’m ain’t laying down, and I’m gonna help people.”

Of course, he’s had to adapt to his new role. With Artin in charge, he’s learning to follow orders instead of giving them.

“I don’t need to be a general,” he said. “Rank? I’m past rank. I’m Kevin.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached christopher.kuo@duke.edu

In photo at top: Kevin McDonald in his home. He now splurges and has a real Coca-Cola. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal